I also suffered much pain at all times and much
worry, loss of sleep, and nervous prostration.
—HELGA ESTBY’S TESTIMONY
SPOKANE COUNTY COURT RECORDS
One of the first sights and sounds Helga and the children witnessed when they stepped off the train in May of 1887 was the roaring, spectacular Spokane Falls. The Spokane River cascaded over upper and lower basalt channels in 130 feet of stunning power right in the heart of downtown. The pride of early settlers, it was the source that sparked imaginative men in the early 1880s to gamble their destinies on this isolated land even though it was far from any railroad connections. Minneapolis had gained status as the largest flour manufacturing center of the world through the 20,000 horse power generated from the famed St. Anthony’s Falls, yet engineers estimated the power of Spokane Falls at a monumental 90,000 horse power.1 This power motivated pioneers to tame nature and harness the water to run the early granaries, lumber mills, and other industries.
The Spokane Indians knew this magnificent resource as the home for rich runs of spring salmon, which drew the tribal members back to their traditional river waters each August. For many Spokane Falls citizens and visitors, the falls’ roaring presence near the dusty dirt streets of the city spoke of a greater power, a Creator with a lavish spirit of energy that refreshed; people constantly paused on the bridges to watch the foaming swirls and hear this thundering natural force. The one-hundred-mile Spokane River cut a swath through eastern Washington territory from the north end of Coeur d’Alene Lake to its confluence with the Columbia River below Fort Spokane. Each natural wonder added to a sense of the splendor of the Northwest, a visual feast to Helga after the flat expanse of the prairie.
For centuries, this region along the river had been the ancestral home of the Spokane Indians, most commonly translated as “children of the sun.” An interior Salish tribe, they lived in the general area of the Spokane River in three primary bands, the Upper Spokanes, the Middle Spokanes, and the Lower Spokanes. They began fur trading with the first white men in 1810. Both Protestant and Catholic missionaries came into the area during the ensuing years, but it was not until the 1860s that miners and farmers began their push to settle in the Spokane tribal lands. The Northern Pacific Railroad arrived in Spokane in 1881, which opened up the territory to easy access for settlers; that same year, the Lower Spokanes moved to the newly established Spokane Reservation. By 1887, when Ole and Helga came to Spokane Falls, the Upper and Middle Spokanes ceded titles to their lands and many moved to the Coeur d’Alene Reservation.2
The other sound that promised growth and prosperity to settlers’ ears was the constant chugging from the transcontinental railroads. By the time the Estbys arrived, railroads going east to Coeur d’Alene led to the rich mining areas, routes going north led to Colville and Canada for lumber and mining, and routes going south led to the Palouse, a land renowned for exceptionally fertile wheat fields. Now, instead of waking up in relative isolation, Helga woke to the bustle of a city brimming with optimism and reckless hope. Within one month, she and Ole purchased three lots just one block east of Division Street on Pine and Fourth Streets. Southeast of the heart of the business district, this location was the same one advertised in the Spokane Chronicle they had seen earlier in Minnesota. Helga’s choice to list herself as a farmer, not a housewife, in the 1888 city census suggests she may have started a garden farm on these lots and had plans to sell produce in the city. For the first time in their lives, they lived in a non-Norwegian community. Spokane Falls included a large English colony, and many Scotsmen, Irishmen, Canadians, and Germans were numbered among the leading businessmen of the city. Helga also made a key decision affecting the fate of her family. For Ole and the children, learning English now seemed essential. Helga no longer allowed Norwegian to be spoken in their home, primarily so Ole could learn faster. As a carpenter, he needed to be capable of making and signing contracts in English. Their family even began attending an English-speaking church, rather than joining the congregation that worshiped in Norwegian. The children adapted quickly and felt confident in their language abilities within a short time.3
Howard Street, Spokane, in 1887, the year the Estbys arrived from Minnesota, with a large “Welcome” sign for new settlers.
Courtesy Northwest Museum of Arts & Culture/Eastern Washington State
Historical Society, Spokane, Washington, L87-1.2281-65.
Detail of this photograph on this page.
The city sponsored its first fair where citizens proudly displayed homegrown flowers, fruits and vegetables, embroidery, quilts, rag rugs, and knitting. Helga had learned to do beautiful handiwork as a child in Norway, so she began entering her creations and earned many prizes.4
Helga found pleasure in showing her children the sights of the lively city, reminiscent of her own childhood days in Christiana, Norway. Walking along the handsome brick blocks of magnificent stores, they could look into the large plate-glass windows. There they viewed the fine dry goods, silks, satins, jewelry, hardware, furniture, and rugs offered to fashionably dress and furnish the homes in Spokane Falls’ growing population of affluent citizens. Sometimes she even took the older children for a longer walk over to the beautiful Browne’s Addition neighborhood. During Spokane’s gilded age, she saw the elegant mansions being built by men who had gained enormous wealth from the mining, lumber, and business boom. No expense seemed too much for some of these homes as owners brought in marble from Europe, fine woods from Asia, or chandeliers and clocks from Tiffany’s in New York. Even if living in these homes seemed unimaginable, she appreciated that these same wealthy citizens encouraged the flourishing of live theater and local musical productions, like Pinafore and Mikado—something that every citizen could enjoy.
But rapid growth came at a cost, one that proved particularly painful for the happiness and peace of the Estby family. When they arrived in 1887, there were around six thousand people; within three years the city claimed a population of twenty thousand.5 With such rapid growth, the city failed to keep up a healthy infrastructure. Sanitary conditions were marginal with fetid cesspools polluting the alleys. Wood boardwalks lined the central dirt roads of commerce and often the city failed to repair the dangerous holes caused by cattle drives, creating hazards for unsuspecting people or animals.6
What happened to Helga on a dark night in 1888 near Riverside Avenue and Division Street shattered whatever burgeoning confidence the couple had in trusting their own strength to carve out a better life. Riverside Avenue, a major thoroughfare, was being repaired and graded, and no markers existed alerting pedestrians to the dangers this created. While hurrying home one night, Helga’s foot hit an obstacle, and she fell hard on piles of rocks and deeply injured her pelvic area.
This fall caused serious health problems that debilitated Helga and tumbled her into despair.7 When time revealed the extent of her injuries and lingering illness, Helga decided to take an unusual step. Because she no longer could contribute to the needs of her family, she sued the city of Spokane Falls for $5000 for failure to provide warning signs or barriers for pedestrians.8 This meant Helga needed to appear before an all-male legal system to speak publicly about extremely private feminine health issues. Remnants of the Victorian emphasis on separate spheres for men and women still remained; Helga’s decision to enter the public realm of the courtroom where the judge, lawyers, and jurors were all men showed unusual fortitude. Her refusal to remain invisible and silent on the effects of a public event on her private domestic life clearly countered prevailing custom.9 It was so unusual for women to testify in court, that their public presence often caused a sensation. Although her original testimony is not recorded, she described her 1888 injuries in a later deposition:
I fell on Riverside Avenue, near Division Street, in the City of Spokane, and struck upon the rocks. The fall was upon my pelvic region in front and caused the skin to be discolored for a time and muscles to remain sore for a long time. There was also some slight injury to my left leg. As a result of the fall the internal walls of the pelvic region and the womb became very sore, particularly at the time of my periodic sickness, resulting in an abnormal hemorrhage at such times and also caused an abnormal duration of such sickness. I also suffered much pain at all times and much loss of sleep, worry, and nervous prostration. The pain also at times caused fainting spells.10
During these months Helga was often under the care of doctors and nurses. Once physically strong, Helga now lived in chronic pain, weakened and anemic from the injuries.
In a trial that lasted for several days during February, 1889, seventeen witnesses testified on Helga’s behalf. One of the witnesses, Dr. Mary Latham, practicing in the relatively new field of gynecology, had come to Spokane in 1887. One of the first female graduates of the Cincinnati College of Medicine and Surgery, Latham was known for her expertise in women’s and children’s diseases, and her testimony on the extent of Helga’s injuries likely aided the case.11
The city vehemently argued against the suit, trying to either pass the blame onto Helga for not being careful enough or onto the company hired to do the grading. Helga stood in front of these men and spoke directly about the personal injuries to her internal organs, the frightening side effects, and the discouraging struggle in trying to mother seven children while in ill health. Such a large family needed a mother’s strength and talents for their livelihood; now a heavy burden was placed on her oldest daughter, eleven-year-old Clara.
One month before the trial, on January 29, 1889, the Estbys needed to borrow $60 on their city lots, perhaps for court expenses.12 A February 21, 1889, Spokane Falls Review headline announced the outcome of Helga’s bold lawsuit: “The Jury in the Estley [sic] Suit Against the City Failed to Agree.”13 After risking public exposure of her personal life, Helga must have been quite depressed by the hung jury. Shortly thereafter, Ole and Helga satisfied the $60 debt and borrowed another $250 mortgage on their city land, perhaps for more medical or attorney’s bills.14 Her attorney appealed and the case came to court again in July, 1889 and the next jury found in Helga’s favor. The jury awarded her a judgment of $2500 plus $600 for court costs.15 Although small compensation for loss of health, even after attorney fees it provided a princely sum for a large family with a lifetime of marginal resources. Equally important was the affirmation Helga experienced that reinforced her choice to test and trust the public world of American law. She gained assurance that the American justice system could hear a woman’s need and respond fairly. She also saw that defying prevailing convention for women could be rewarded.
The same 1889 summer that saw Helga’s lawsuit result in a hung jury, saw devastation come to the prospering frontier town. Around four in the afternoon on Sunday, August 4, when temperatures soared into the 90s, a fire bell clanged the news that a fire had broken out in the middle of town. Helga and Ole heard the fire alarm from their Fourth Avenue home and climbed with their children up to a lean- to roof above their laundry and utility room. At first, they were not concerned because, unlike when wildfires roared across dry prairie lands, Spokane Falls prided itself on an excellent fire department with immediate access to an unlimited supply of water from the river downtown. Within minutes, the horse-drawn fire engine and Volunteer Fire Department members rushed to the scene, joined by many citizens eager to help.
The fire department, however, could not stop the small fire and a scatter of shanties north of Railroad Avenue quickly picked up the flying sparks. Within minutes, when firefighters failed to get sufficient water pressure from the pumps, the Estbys watched in disbelief as a wall of flame poured northward toward First Avenue. Panicked citizens rushed away from the exploding flames, running toward Fourth Avenue where the Estbys lived. “We watched the people go by with all their belongings that they could collect in sheets and they carried bird carriages and little dogs and little cats and whole families going by,” recalled Ida, who watched from the roof with her family when she was six years old.16
Though the fire did not come up as far as their street, by midnight over thirty-two blocks of the nearby business district lay in ruins. Exquisite buildings, including the new four-story Spokane Opera House, first-class hotels, banks, and businesses were reduced to ashes. The gem city suffered a loss to buildings totaling over ten million dollars and by morning was a visual wasteland of destruction, except for the Crescent block. Helga lost the illusion of security the river had given her as a protection from fires. Seeing this fiery devastation so close to her family left Helga with a new uneasiness and anxiety, reminiscent of her panic after their prairie fire.
By August 6, relief supplies began arriving by trains and a tent city sprang up overnight in Spokane Falls, encouraged by the generous outpouring from other parts of the country. Though the city lay in ashes, the Estbys saw an astonishing surge of fortitude and creativity as the city leaders chose to see the fire as an opportunity to rebuild the city of their dreams. Commerce in the tent city revived immediately, and Helga decided to show the children the businessmen’s creative temporary solutions. “There was the Grahams and Libby Photography and the Davenport and they were all in tents,” recalled daughter Ida, remembering Spokane after the 1889 fire. “I can remember mother took us down to see all the tents and everything.” Because Helga seldom allowed the children to go to town, especially when she was ill, this seemed like a real treat.17
For Ole, this city crisis provided immediate opportunities for him, along with steady wages that lasted well into the next two years. The city leaders were determined to still host the planned Exposition of 1890 and built the new structures with fireproof granite. The Estby family benefited from their commitment.
Something else proved fortunate for Helga. New breakthroughs in the controversial field of gynecology were occurring and three surgeons operated on her.18 During a long convalescent period afterward, Clara, as oldest daughter, became her mother’s main source of help in the home. A thoughtful and responsible child, Clara was now fourteen years old, capable of getting children ready for school, cooking family meals, and providing comfort to her mother. Best of all, a few months after the successful surgery, Helga regained her health. She no longer lived with the belief she would be weak and painridden forever. After a rare five-year pause between births, Helga became pregnant with their eighth child and gave birth to William in April, 1892. With this renewal in their fortunes and the children growing, Helga began to dream a new dream.